Asian World Cup Qualifiers – First Round Round-up
Pick of the Round: Bhutan v Sri Lanka
Bhutan has always been hesitant to modernise. The newly democratic government – headed by the Dragon King Jigme Khesar Namgyel – has always been wary of diluting their remarkably unique cultural identity: Coca-Cola is banned, as are advertising hoardings. The country is constitutionally committed to being at least 60% forested, and its number one export is renewable energy. The population was given the afternoon off today by Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay to watch the game and support the national team – an act of saintly benevolence that could only come from a country that boasts a government-appointed ‘Gross National Happiness Commission’.
France 1998 enraptured the Bhutanese population, who subsequently became obsessed with football – a passion that exploded when a nation-wide ban on television was lifted a year later. Bhutan’s national team, which is comprised almost entirely of part-timers and students (some are even still at high school), is currently ranked the lowest in the world. It’s fair to say that they are outsiders – in chance of success and geographical location. The country didn’t even appear on European maps until the 18th century. But their historic 3-1 aggregate win over Sri Lanka – who are 36 places above them in the FIFA world rankings, and have beaten them in each of their last 5 encounters – means they are now through to the second qualifying round.
Bhutan had Chencho Gyeltshen to thank for their victory. The Buriram United striker scored in both legs, polishing off the victory with a 90th minute solo effort that Diego Maradona – the man who nicknamed Chencho ‘the hidden pearl of Asia’ (other nicknames include ‘the Ronaldo of Bhutan’ and ‘CG7’) – would’ve been proud of.
First Round Winner
Second Round Highlights
Outside Northern Asia the fairytale qualifying round was also cast with shades of darkness. Yemen and Pakistan have both been consistently blighted by separatist violence. In Yemen, Houthi rebels recently seized power in a coup d’etat, whilst in the Pakistani city of Lahore at least 14 people were killed in a suicide bombing on Sunday. As a result the first leg between the two teams – which ended 3-1 to Yemen, with every goal coming from a set piece – was played in an almost empty Grand Hamad Stadium in Doha, Qatar, with the 2nd leg currently postponed. The only remaining first round qualifier will be played behind closed doors and with a heavy security presence.
Yemen vs Pakistan Highlights
Elsewhere India shut up shop to defend a 2-0 first leg victory, holding a spirited Nepalese side to a 0-0 draw away from home. Joining them in the second round will be the Timor-Leste – an Oceanic island state bordering Indonesia - who bolstered a remarkably one sided 4-1 first round win over Mongolia with a another 1-0 win away today in Ulan Bator.
More drama was to be found in Brunei, where Taipei managed to overturn a 1-0 home loss to win 1-2 in Bandar Seri Begawan – with a lob from the halfway line.
Eyes now turn to the second round draw on the 14th of April, where every neutral will no doubt be supporting universal underdogs Bhutan. The Thunder Dragon Kingdom have a mountain to climb if they want to qualify for the World Cup… but for a Himalayan nation, that’s certainly nothing new.